New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has offended devotees of the Anglosphere by indicating she is not prepared to take her country into the kind of trade war with China that Australia has found itself facing.
Asserting her nation’s sovereignty has potentially deep implications for the “Five Eyes” alliance, the intelligence-sharing partnership that emerged after World War II and blossomed in the Cold War. Indeed, some say New Zealand has confirmed itself as the weak link in the intelligence chain that it joined with the US, the UK, Canada and Australia.
The upset stems from a statement by Ardern’s relatively new Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta, who on Monday last week said that she did not want New Zealand’s complex relationship with China to be defined by Five Eyes.
She suggested that Wellington needed to “maintain and respect” China’s “particular customs, traditions and values.”
At a joint press conference with her Australian counterpart, Marise Payne, on Thursday last week, Mahuta was even more explicit.
“The Five Eyes arrangement is about a security and intelligence framework. It’s not necessary, all the time on every issue, to invoke Five Eyes as your first port of call in terms of creating a coalition of support around particular issues in the human rights space,” she said.
Payne acknowledged that New Zealand had the right to determine its own response to human rights issues, but made the case for speaking out.
“We also have to acknowledge that China’s outlook — the nature of China’s external engagement both in our region and globally — has changed in recent years,” Payne said.
The dispute on how to handle China, and through which institutions, has been rumbling for some time. In January, New Zealand Minister of Agriculture Damien O’Connor suggested Australia follow his example and show China a little more respect, adding that a little diplomacy from time to time did not go amiss.
Ardern and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison are reportedly going to meet in Canberra in two weeks to discuss the issue.
Ardern in her first term ceded much foreign policy to her then-foreign minister Winston Peters, leader of the First Party, but seems willing to take the helm in her second term.
New Zealand, like Australia, trades heavily with Beijing, with 29 percent of its export revenue dependent on China. It has been New Zealand’s biggest trading partner since 2017, leading Ardern to navigate evidence of Chinese political and technological interference gingerly. New Zealand has signed a free-trade deal with China, and over the past few months opted out of joining Five Eyes declarations condemning China’s abuse of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang.
New Zealand has also seen how Australia’s willingness to challenge China has led to severe trade repercussions. The dispute is still raging, with the Australian government on Thursday last week tearing up Victoria state’s Belt and Road agreements with China, deeming them as not in the national interest.
Mahuta’s remarks might also disappoint a breed of Brexiter that foresaw the Anglosphere and Five Eyes as the future beating heart of a diplomatic intelligence alliance against China.
“The wise use of naval power is critical to keeping the economic arteries open. The Five Eyes can become the centrepiece of the intelligence gathering and analysis to support these operations,” Anthony Wells said in his book Between Five Eyes: 50 Years of Intelligence Sharing.
There had in the past few months been some signs that the UK, out of the EU, but eager for new alliances in the Indo-Pacific region, had been pushing the Five Eyes in a more political direction, blurring the distinction between policy and intelligence.
In November last year, the five nations, for instance, issued a joint statement condemning the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong. The UK has also been angling for Japan, one of the countries most informed on China’s security intentions, to join the alliance.
Perhaps as the smallest of the five nations in the alliance, New Zealand could see itself being dragooned into an expanded and more ambitious alliance over which it would have little control.
Ardern herself had suggested Five Eyes might not be the most appropriate vehicle with which to issue statements on China, asking: “Is that best done under the banner of a grouping of countries around a security intelligence platform, or is it best done around a group of countries with shared values — some of which might not belong to that Five Eyes partnership?”
Ciaran Martin, a former chief executive of the National Cybersecurity Centre, part of the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters, has said that the idea that New Zealand had endangered the foundations of the network was to misunderstand its specific security role.
“Five Eyes governments could choose to expand the alliance for example coordinate foreign policy on China. But they have not, yet, and it would be a huge change in how the Five Eyes works. For now, New Zealand is not opposing anything anyone has actually (publicly) proposed,” he wrote on Twitter.
However, Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University, questioned Ardern’s rationale.
Five Eyes was an “extremely trusted and long-serving intelligence-sharing arrangement” that was always going to translate into coordinating policy as well,” he said.
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